It is cocktail hour at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Mexican resort town of Cancún. In a corner of the lobby bar, several well-dressed men and women are engaged in a serious tasting of some type of spirit, which they swirl in snifters. Drawing near, a listener can overhear comments on bouquet, flavor and finish. Getting even closer, it becomes evident that these connoisseurs are tasting tequila.
Once drowned in pitchers of Margaritas or gulped in shots, tequila is shedding its bad-boy image and turning up in some pretty sophisticated company. Many leading U.S. restaurants and bars now offer a list of 10, 20, even 25 fine tequilas to complement their array of single-malt Scotches, Cognacs and other high-end spirits.
In Mexico, the Ritz-Carlton, Cancún, has become a sort of Mecca for tequila aficionados. There, a special area of the bar is reserved for tequila tasting, and a slim black folder trimmed in gold lists the 120 tequilas that the hotel offers by the glass.
"Our guests love tequila, and they buy expensive tequilas," says Ricardo Cisneros, beverage manager and tequilier (tequila sommelier) for the hotel, who assembled the impressive collection. Cisneros says that some guests are so captivated with certain rare tequilas that they buy bottles from the hotel to take home. "We used to sell one or two bottles per month of Don Julio, which is one of the best tequilas that we have. Now, I am selling ten cases per month to guests," Cisneros says with a disbelieving laugh. Price, apparently, is no object; the hotel sells a bottle of Reserva de la Casa Don Julio, Añejo for the equivalent of about $90.
Stateside, the interest in upscale tequilas has led to a proliferation of high-end bottlings, in addition to well-established brands such as Cuervo 1800, Sauza Conmemorativo, Tres Generaciones and Herradura. Now, to offer a good tequila selection, a retailer or bar manager must devote several feet of shelf space to showcase bottlings such as Chinaco, Dos Reales, Patrón, Porfidio, El Tesoro de Don Felipe and Centinela.
"Interest in premium tequilas is going up, there's no question," says Val Huffman, manager of Cilantros, a popular Southwestern-style restaurant in Del Mar, California. "People are much more knowledgeable about how tequila is made and aged. Instead of ordering just a plain tequila drink, now people are specifying a brand: 'I want a Tres straight up;' 'I want an El Tesoro and tonic.' It's definitely changed."
Notwithstanding all this interest in upscale tequilas, many myths persist about the spirit, so let's dispel a few of them right off. First, tequila is not made from cactus; rather, it is distilled from the heart of the blue agave (tequilana Weber, variedad azul), a spiny succulent that looks a bit like an aloe plant and is cultivated specifically for tequila production. Second, tequila contains no worm; certain brands of mescal, a kindred but harsher spirit, are bottled with a worm. Third, tequila isn't firewater; at 80 proof, it has exactly as much alcohol as most gins and vodkas.
In addition to the widespread misperceptions about tequila, the spirit is also saddled with a macho image left over from the days when tequila was a rougher tipple best consumed in a quick swallow. "Many years ago, let's say 20, 30 years ago, tequila was considered a low-class drink," acknowledges Francisco Gonzalez, president of Tequila Tres Magueyes, which produces moderately priced tequila, such as Montezuma, as well as the highly regarded Reserva de la Casa Don Julio, Añejo, available only in Mexico. "Now, people's attitudes have changed a lot. In all the best restaurants and hotels, and all the nicest homes in Mexico, you will find a selection of fine, aged tequilas."
An appreciation of fine tequila begins with an understanding of how and where it is made. Most tequila is produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, although tequila is also made in certain areas of four nearby states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Many types of agave, a low-to-the-ground, spiked plant, grow wild in Mexico's desert areas, but only the blue variety may be used in tequila production. Unlike grapes or grain, which reach maturity to yield fermentable sugars in a matter of months, the blue agave takes its time, about eight to 12 years, before it is ready to harvest. To harvest the agave, experienced workers use sharp spadelike implements to quickly dispatch the plant, cutting it off at the base and cropping its spiny leaves. The result is a bulbous object, weighing an average of 40 to 80 pounds (with some weighing up to 175 pounds), that resembles a pineapple on steroids and is in fact called a piña.
The piñas are taken to the distillery, halved or quartered and steamed or baked in large ovens or pressure cookers for up to two days, until they form a soft, pulpy, sweet slurry. This is milled to break up the fibers and extract the juice, which goes into vats for fermentation.
It is at this point that the production of 100 percent agave tequila differs from that of standard, mass-market tequila. With 100 percent agave tequila, the pure agave juice is allowed to ferment over a period of several days, then it is transferred to a still, where the first of two distillations begins.
However, in the production of tequila, Mexican regulations permit the addition of up to 49 percent sugar; the sugar is added before fermentation. Most producers of inexpensive tequila have taken full advantage of this regulation, yielding tequilas that are only 51 percent agave.
While the 100 percent agave designation on a tequila label is an important indicator of product integrity and style, it is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. "One hundred percent agave doesn't mean it's a better tequila," asserts Juan Domingo Beckmann, director of new products for Tequila Cuervo SA in Mexico City. Beckmann claims that some unscrupulous tequila producers skimp on production quality but still are able to conform to the 100 percent agave designation. "You can find excellent tequilas that aren't 100 percent agave," notes Beckmann, who advises against using 100 percent agave tequila in mixed drinks because it is too aromatic. "Some tequilas are made for mixing and some are made to be sipped alone, but that doesn't mean one is better," he concludes.
Like rum, tequila is marketed in its unaged as well as its aged state. The vast majority of tequila is bottled without aging shortly after distillation. Unaged tequilas are labeled white (blanco) or silver (plata), or they may have caramel color added and be labeled gold.
Reposado, literally "rested," tequilas must be aged for at least two months in wood, although some reposado tequilas are aged for up to a year. Most reposado and older tequilas are aged in American white oak barrels that previously were used for Bourbon.
For the term "añejo" to appear on the label, the tequila must be aged at least one year in wood, and most añejo tequilas are aged longer. But, according to many producers, prolonged aging beyond a certain point does not improve tequila. "The master distillers I have talked to say you cannot age tequila much more than three years," says Paul Campos, whose company, El Dorado Importers of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, imports Centinela tequila to the United States. "After that it becomes quite bitter. It's not like a Bourbon or some whiskeys that you can age 10, 15, 18 years."
The term "gold," which widely appears on tequila labels, actually has no legal significance. It is impossible to overemphasize that that deep gold color is not a sign of either age or quality in tequila. Most gold-toned tequilas obtain their tint not by wood aging, but by the addition of caramel color, which is permitted by Mexican regulations. The natural color of a three-year-old añejo tequila is pale straw; a rich golden hue in tequila may signal artificial coloring.
All tequila bottled in Mexico must show a NOM--the distillery (or sometimes bottler) identification number--on the label. Since this NOM can also appear on tequila bottled in the United States,it is not particularly meaningful unless you are trying to determine which distillery made a certain brand of tequila. Even then, there are exceptions; I have seen 100 percent agave tequilas for sale in the United States that were bottled in Mexico but do not carry a NOM.
White tequila is altogether different in character from reposado or añejo bottlings. High quality white tequilas should smell strongly of agave fruit, a hard-to-define scent that most tasters describe as vegetal, herbaceous and smoky. Reposado or añejo tequilas take on additional aromas and flavors, often including tropical fruit, citrus, vanilla and various herbs and spices. With any fine tequila, smoothness on the palate is a plus, particularly if you are sipping it straight. Although a brisk and peppery finish is a hallmark of many good tequilas, outright harshness is a sign of an inferior product.
While the lion's share of the tequila that is consumed in the United States ends up in a Margarita, many tequila buffs prefer to sip their blanco, reposado or añejo straight to savor the distinctive flavors. White or reposado tequilas are generally served in shot or cordial glasses. Sometimes these tequilas are accompanied by the traditional lime wedge and salt. They also can be followed by a chaser of sangrita, a Mexican invention. Sangrita bears no relation to sangria; rather, it is a mixture of tomato, citrus and/or tropical fruit juices, sometimes accented with grenadine, and spiked with hot sauce, lime juice, salt and other, "secret" ingredients. Its bracing spiciness is a great foil for a swallow of reposado.
Añejo tequila is best appreciated in a snifter, like brandy, either before, during or after dinner. "People are getting away from having shooters at the bar and enjoying tequila as they enjoy Cognac," observes Don Senich, general manager of Red Sage, Mark Miller's restaurant in Washington, D.C. "They like the robust flavor of tequila, but they like some of the edge taken off by aging. And some of these very expensive tequilas are over $60 a bottle, which is considerably more than many well-known Cognacs."
The key point to remember about fine, 100 percent agave tequilas is to sip, not slam them; the macho approach is strictly déclassé. The Ritz-Carlton's Cisneros ruefully remembers one of the first tequila tastings he conducted at the hotel, for six guests. The waitress poured a fine añejo into brandy snifters as Cisneros began to talk about the tequila they were tasting. In an instant, four of the six men had downed their tequila in one shot. "They said, 'Wow, this is good tequila,' but to me, they lost everything," he laments. Now, he is careful to explain tequila tasting before it is poured.
Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.
Super-premium Tequilas: A Drinker's Guide*
White or Silver (Blanco or Plata) Tequilas
Centinela Blanco--This fresh and fruity tequila offers attractive pear aromas and is very smooth on the palate. Centinela is produced by a family-owned distillery in Arandas, Jalisco.
Chinaco Blanco--Light and clean in style, this white tequila offers a bright, herbaceous and perfumed nose with spicy flavors and a peppery finish. Chinaco is produced by La Gonzaleña distillery in Gonzalez, Tamaulipas.
El Tesoro de Don Felipe Plata--El Tesoro is produced by La Alteña distillery, an artisanal operation that is owned by the Camarena family and located in the mountainous Los Altos region of the state of Jalisco. El Tesoro silver is an assertive drink, full of fresh agave fruit flavors.
Herradura Silver--Herradura tequilas are made in a heavier, richer style, and the silver is a smoky, herb-scented spirit with a smooth, almost oily mouth-feel and a long finish. Like the other Herradura tequilas, the silver is 100 percent agave and estate-bottled, which means it is made only from agaves grown on the Herradura property in Amatitan, a town six miles south of Tequila in the state of Jalisco.
Jaime Rosales--This new 100 percent agave tequila was introduced last month in seven distribution areas: New York, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, California and the Chicago metropolitan area. This estate-grown tequila is available as a blanco as well as a reposado, and reportedly was produced according to a formula created by the former chief chemist for Cuervo, who recently retired from the company.
Patrón Silver--Packaged in an elegant Mexican hand-blown glass decanter with green glints, Patrón silver is produced by the Siete Leguas distillery in Atotonilco, Jalisco. It is a distinctive, clean-tasting spirit with attractive herbaceous, minty aromas and a smooth, peppery finish. Hairstyling products magnate John Paul De Joria (Paul Mitchell products) is a partner in the importing company that brings in Patrón, which has conferred on it a certain celebrity cachet.
Porfidio Silver--Packaged in a slender bottle akin to those used for some grappas, this white tequila has smoky, herbal aromas and is a bit harsh on the palate.
Chinaco Reposado--An exotic bouquet with scents of crystallized ginger distinguishes this reposado.
Herradura Gold (Reposado)--Herradura claims to use no caramel color in its tequilas. This richly flavored tequila is scented with exotic pineapple and other tropical fruit aromas and is zesty and a bit hot on the palate.
Jose Cuervo Tradicional--Almost colorless, this tequila is assertive and herbaceous with rich, smooth flavors. Drink it chilled and neat, advises Cuervo's Juan Domingo Beckmann. Don't confuse this small-production, 100 percent agave bottling with Cuervo Especial, also known as Cuervo Gold, the best-selling tequila in the United States.
Sauza Hornitos--Sauza's only 100 percent agave tequila, this bottling has long enjoyed a cult following. It has a pleasantly sweet bouquet with scents of lemon and herbs and is brisk and full-bodied on the palate.
Centinela Añejo--A lighter style añejo, this vanilla- and ginger-scented tequila has clean, forthright flavors. According to its importer, Centinela tequilas contain no artificial colors, sweeteners, caramel or other flavoring agents.
Centinela Añejo 3 Años--Pale straw in color, Centinela's three year old is nutmeggy, rich and suave on the palate.
Dos Reales Añejo--This tequila is produced by Cuervo SA at its La Rojeña distillery in Tequila. It is gold in color with a caramel and oak-scented bouquet and is very smooth but not terribly complex on the palate. Dos Reales is not labeled 100 percent agave.
El Tesoro de Don Felipe Añejo--This pale straw-colored spirit offers complex aromas mingling lemon, rosemary and pineapple. On the palate it has a hint of sweetness and lemony, brisk flavors.
Herradura Añejo--The color of a 10-year-old Chardonnay--unusually dark for a tequila with no caramel color--this 100 percent agave tequila is like brandy and very appealing, with toffee scents and mellow oak-aged flavors.
La Reserva de la Familia de Jose Cuervo--In September, Cuervo will introduce this blend of 100 percent agave añejo commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the distilling company. A limited edition of 1.75 liter bottles, cradled in wooden boxes and featuring a label painted by Mexican artist Joel Rendòn, will be sold for $150, although company officials note that only 1,900 of these are being made. La Reserva de la Familia will also be available in a production of 3,500 750ml. bottles, at about $60 a bottle.
Patrón Añejo--Straw-colored, this aged tequila offers smoky agave scents overlaid with wood. On the palate it is lemony, rich, clean and very easy to drink.
Porfidio Añejo--This two-year-old añejo is a very pale straw color; it has a delicate aroma of wood and nutmeg and is spicy and a bit hot on the palate.
Porfidio Añejo Extra--Bottled in a gray, hand-painted Mexican ceramic crock, this tequila is a blend of añejos aged up to six years. The bouquet is mushroomy and earthy, yet the flavor is very smooth.
Porfidio Single Barrel Añejo (cactus bottle)--This wins the hard-fought tequila packaging wars with an eye-catching hand-blown bottle that contains a single green Royal Palm glass cactus, complete with red blooms, inside. (The purist in me chides Porfidio's importer, Tequila Imports Inc., for obfuscating tequila's agave origins with the cactus in the bottle, but there's no denying that the package is dynamite.) The tequila in the bottle is almost beside the point, but actually it's quite an intriguing drink, Chardonnay-colored, with exotic scents of pineapple, smoke, oak and herbs. On the palate it is extremely smooth and a bit sweet.
Sauza Conmemorativo--Earthy, mushroomy flavors dominate the bouquet of this añejo, which is not labeled 100 percent agave. Conmemorativo's pale straw color is entirely natural, according to the distiller, with no caramel color added. This añejo is produced at the Sauza distillery in the town of Tequila.
Sauza Tres Generaciones--Pale straw color, this sipping tequila offers complex aromas, mingling mossy-herbal and tropical fruit notes. On the palate it is brisk but smooth. Like Conmemorativo, Tres is not labeled 100 percent agave.
Not Categorized by Age
Cuervo 1800--Packaged in a distinctive decanter, this tequila has the golden color of a dry amontillado sherry. Wood and spicy scents of ginger dominate the bouquet. The label declares 1800 to be a "marriage of añejo and other fine tequilas"; in other words, it cannot be termed añejo. Nor is it 100 percent agave tequila. Nevertheless, 1800 has a style entirely unto itself and is a very popular brand in the United States, particularly in high-end Margaritas.
* All tequilas are labeled as 100 percent agave unless otherwise noted.